In every society, the rules of regulation are a delicate balancing act

Laws and protections are drawn up and put in place for the benefit of us all, and their implementation is an ongoing process

MASAFI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - February 26, 2009: Fruit and vegetable shops at the Friday Market. The Friday Market is located in the town of Masafi, on the way to Fujairah, as a result of the global economic downturn shop keepers say sales are lower than in previous years. 
( Ryan Carter / The National )

** For a story by Hugh Naylor *** Local Caption ***  RC011-FridayMarket.JPGRC011-FridayMarket.JPG
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Last week, I and three other people spoke to a meeting organised by the British Business Group in Abu Dhabi. Nothing controversial – just an unstructured ramble about various aspects of our lives, in the UAE and beyond. Before being able to do so, though, we had to submit passport photographs, copies of our IDs and a brief outline of who we were, so that permission could be obtained from the relevant authorities.

I was happy to do so, and I hope that the audience enjoyed the talks. I was reminded, however, and not for the first time, of the way in which all kinds of activities are becoming subject to regulation.

It's not just bodies such as the British Business Group. If, for example, a school or college identifies an opportunity to invite a visiting sports star or astronaut or author to come and talk to its students, they have to jump through a similar hoop of applying for permission weeks ahead. Where such an opportunity only comes up at short notice, that permission cannot be obtained in time and students miss out on the chance to hear someone who might very well inspire them.

I understand the desire to collect information on such events, particularly where sensitive political or religious topics might be discussed. I would have thought, however, that it should be possible for bodies such as the various national business councils, all of whom are officially registered, schools, or other organisations, to be assessed and then, where appropriate, be given the authority to go ahead and organise events. A simple report afterwards could provide the information that is needed.

A greater degree of flexibility and a removal of the requirement to request permissions weeks in advance would surely be of benefit to various civil-society organisations, as well as to schools and others.

In contrast, I was also reminded over the weekend of the existence of some forms of commercial activity where, in my view, a greater degree of regulation would be of definite benefit.

A greater degree of flexibility and a removal of the requirement to request permissions weeks in advance would surely be of benefit to various civil-society organisations, as well as to schools and others

On both sides of the unfenced road near Shawka, which leads from Mileiha to Fujairah, vendors of fruit and vegetables park their pick-ups and cars adjacent to the highway to try to attract purchases from the vehicles driving past. In many cases, they're only a couple of metres from the edge of the road, often parked on a steep bank. The obvious traffic hazard is exacerbated by purchasers who pull up alongside, as other drivers rush by at high speed.

Yet, a few hundred metres further on, there is flat land on either side of the road, where both buyers and sellers can safely park, well away from the highway.  It would be easy for the local police and municipality to insist that this incipient roadside market should be moved back from the highway, but, as yet, that has not happened. One day, I fear, there’s going to be a bad accident there.

Those with long memories will recall that the sale of fruit and vegetables by the roadside is how the popular Friday Market just outside Masafi began. It is now a double line of shops, selling food, carpets, pottery and all sorts of other items, with adequate parking, electricity supplies and even a petrol station, that attracts hundreds of visitors. Through the levying of a modest annual licence fee, it even contributes funds to the local municipality.

Numerous similar roadside markets exist across the country, stimulating the economy, encouraging local farmers and providing a service to passers-by. Some, like the Friday Market, have evolved into purpose-built shops. That’s evidence of how regulations, sensibly implemented, can be beneficial to all of us.

I wouldn't advocate a return to the freewheeling days of the past, where the regulations that did exist were often openly flouted. In the majority of spheres, the regulations that are in place have been carefully considered and exist for the protection of us all. In every society, the decision to regulate or not, and how to approach the task is a delicate balancing act.

Some years ago, for instance, I was invited to comment on rules being drawn up to govern the collection of environmental data. They had been based, in part, on rules devised in another country, where very different conditions applied. They were so complex and far-reaching that some were clearly inapplicable and unworkable in a local context.

Indeed, as I and others said in our comments, they would actually dissuade people from adhering to them. Instead, they would encourage evasion and a concealment of information from the body devising the rules in question. I was delighted when the draft was amended to make them more practical.

Perhaps there’s scope for a wider recognition by both those introducing and implementing new rules and regulations, as well as for those affected by them, that full and frank discussion might be beneficial before they’re rolled out. And, if it becomes apparent that some rules are too complex or too restrictive, there’s nothing wrong with an ongoing process of re-evaluation to ensure that they are fit for purpose.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture